(Pictured: Buffalo Bob, Howdy Doody, and Clarabell.)
In 1969, Steve Dworkin, a staffer at the Jerry Kasenetz/Jeff Katz bubblegum factory Super K Productions wrote a song called “Bring Back Howdy Doody.” The Howdy Doody kids’ show, starring Buffalo Bob Smith, his puppet friend Howdy, Clarabell the Clown, and other characters, had been off the air for nine years, and Dworkin says he wrote it as a joke. Then Dworkin and his songwriting partner Gary Willett got a directive to record as many songs as possible in one day for their bosses to use as a tax write-off. They never expected “Bring Back Howdy Doody” would see daylight—“had we known the track was going to be released we would have made it a lot better!” It ended up as the flipside of the 1910 Fruitgum Company’s “Indian Giver” under the title “Pow Wow,” but it was pressed backwards, a trick Kasenetz and Katz used to make sure radio stations played the plug side only. The songwriting credit went not to Dworkin and Willett but to Kasenetz, Katz, and Fruitgum Company lead singer Mark Gutkowski. Later, Kasenetz and Katz had the song recut (forwards this time) as “Bring Back Howdy Doody” and released it under the name of the Flying Giraffe. It went nowhere, but Dworkin sent a copy to Buffalo Bob Smith and got a friendly letter in return. “Soon after,” Dworkin says, “he started touring colleges.”
Whether “Bring Back Howdy Doody” actually caused Smith’s comeback is arguable. What is not arguable is that by 1970, many of the kids who had grown up on Howdy Doody, which had aired from 1947 to 1960, were in their late teens and 20s. So in that year producer Burt Dubrow packaged Buffalo Bob and Howdy for a touring show. It was sufficiently popular to result in a live recording, Buffalo Bob Smith Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East. (Hand to god, I am not making that up.) The May 29, 1971, edition of Billboard described the album as an “outstanding live performance” of familiar show material. It also “stands out with [Bob’s] unique performance of ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head’.” The tour traded on nostalgia, but new material like “Raindrops” nodded to Buffalo Bob’s older, more sophisticated audiences. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), one popular joke in the live show involved Buffalo Bob finding a package of rolling papers that belonged to Clarabell. Billboard goes on to say that the album is “sure to prove a top best seller.” It did not, however—Billboard was famous for raving like that about almost everything.
(Just once I’d like to read a capsule review that says “this record blows and should be shot immediately into the sun.”)
But in May 1971, there was a Howdy Doody tribute better fitted to Top 40 radio. “Do You Know What Time It Is” by the P-Nut Gallery got its own breathless capsule review in the May 22, 1971, Billboard: “This clever bubblegum item has all the potential to break through and go all the way.” That same week, WLS in Chicago listed it as “hitbound” (along with “Get It On” by Chase, “It’s Too Late” by Carole King, and “Don’t Pull Your Love” by Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds). By the week of June 14, it was in the Top 10 at WLS, eventually making #8. It also made the Top 10 in Milwaukee, Kansas City, and a handful of smaller cities. By mid-July, it made #62 in Billboard and #54 in Cash Box.
“Do You Know What Time It Is” is enthusiastically sung, maybe by one of its two writers, Bobby Flax and Lanny Lambert, but maybe not. It was probably inevitable that it would include a chorus of shouting children. But it’s pure novelty and should be judged as such, and there must have been listeners in the summer of 1971 who punched the dial hard when it came on. Yet as the very existence of this website indicates, nostalgia can make us behave in strange ways.
Flax and Lambert would return to the chart a few months after “Do You Know What Time It Is” with a record that has endured a little better: they wrote and produced “White Lies, Blue Eyes” by Bullet.
Buffalo Bob would revive Howdy Doody briefly in the late 70s. He did some acting, owned some radio stations, and died in
1988 1998 at age 80. Today, Howdy Doody himself is a kind of Jungian archetype: one of those things millions of people know without actually knowing why they know it.
There’s a good story about the role “Do You Know What Time It Is” played in one fan’s life here.